Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean {Book Review}

Once upon a time I was a young, sassy, second lieutenant in the United States Army.

At one point I found myself in Fort Benning, Georgia at Airborne School where I learned how to jump out of airplanes.

I remember being as nervous as hell the night before my first jump.

I emailed my ex-boyfriend/bestfriend/future husband to let him know that I was freaked out.

“We jump tomorrow. I’m probably going to die,” I wrote. 

He was an infantry officer in Iraq at the time. He had been to airborne school several years earlier and thought it was no big deal. He was deployed to Iraq at the time. His life was in legitimate danger every single day. He found my melodramatic email amusing.

But the fear of jumping out of an airplane and putting all of my trust into a nylon parachute manufactured by the lowest bidder was real.

A few hours later I stood at the door of the plane. I was to be the first one out, an honor that I think the jumpmasters held for lieutenants who they thought might freeze in the door.

Then I heard the word “GO!” took a deep breath and stepped into thin air from a moving plane.

I squeezed my eyes shut and started counting…”one thousand, two thousand, three thousand” as I dropped from the sky.

Naturally my parachute opened. I hit the ground like a lawn dart I didn’t die.

That first jump was terrifying, life-changing,…memorable.

When I read the book Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean every memory from this first jump came back. I was jumping into a safe drop-zone. These men were jumping into a wildfire. I had to read it.

I’ve never fought a wildfire or been a smoke jumper but I have jumped out of airplanes, I have been scared out of my mind and I do have a soft spot in my heart for those who protect our public lands.

Because of that, I was sucked into the book.

I couldn’t put it down and when I did it consumed my thoughts and haunted my dreams.

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About Young Men and Fire

This is the story of 16 smoke jumpers, an elite group of airborne wildfire fighters fighting the historic Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949.

It’s a story about what happened when everything, literally everything went wrong.

Just a few hours after their jump a massive, explosive “blow up” nearly killed the entire crew. Sensing danger, seconds before the “blow up”, the crew’s foreman, R. Wagner Dodge started an escape fire saving his life. Two of the other members of the crew escaped through a crevice in a formation of rocks.

The three survivors were left to tell the horrific tale.

This book is a detailed narrative of what happened based on Forest Service Reports, research, personal testimony and memories of those who were there.

It also has an amazing account of the incident as told in 1978 by two of the fire’s survivors, Walter Rumsey and Robert Sallee who accompanied Maclean back to Mann Gulch to relive the tragedy.

Reading the book was like putting together the pieces of the puzzle and trying to solve a mystery that will never be solved.

It’s an interesting look at the intricacies of the bureaucracy that is the Forest Service. It’s a tale of manliness and the invincible nature of youth. It’s also a great lesson in leadership and luck.

The author, Norman Maclean went to great effort to ensure that the story was told as historically accurate as possible.

This is such a captivating story that at times it reads like a work of fiction and I found myself wondering how such an amazing story could be true.

But it is, and the wildfire happened, and it claimed the lives of smokejumpers, and it was tragic but equally fascinating.

What I learned

  • Fear

Some people run from fear. Other people have the calm courage to punch fear in the face and make a decision. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might have been going through the mind’s of smokejumpers when they were faced with fear and death.

  • Leadership & Teamwork

There’s no doubt in my mind that fighting a wildfire is all about teamwork and every team needs a leader. When Dodge, the team’s foreman created an escape fire (he essentially started a smaller fire and then climbed into it) he reported that he motioned and signaled for his crew to follow up. But no one did. No one followed him. It would have saved their lives. Did they not hear him or did they ignore him? It’s a fascinating look at leadership in the midst of fear and chaos.

  • The Power of the Human Mind is Incredible

There’s a portion of the book when the author goes back to Mann Gulch with two of the survivors several decades after the incident. Reading about what they remembered and what they didn’t was amazing to me.

When we’re faced with a traumatic situation do we try to suppress those memories or do they get jumbled and confused? This was especially interesting given my experience as a combat veteran where we either try to block out all of our memories, drink ourselves stupid to forget them or boast of our heroic actions.

Final Thoughts

This book has mixed reviews. Some people call it dry, boring and repetitive. I found it to be the opposite, maybe that just says what kind of a nerd I am. I thought it was fascinating, every single word of it. If you’re looking for a thought-provoking book add this to your summer reading list.


Have you read this book or visited Mann Gulch? Leave us a comment below or on our facebook page.

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3 comments on “Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean {Book Review}

  1. I’m reading Fire Season right now and the author mentioned Maclean’s book in it and I’ve since put it on my to-read (ever growing) list!

    Thanks for your review. Makes me more interested now!

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